The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

April 8, 2013

MSU should be power in new WCHA

The college hockey season’s not quite over yet, but the offseason has been an interesting one so far.

The firing of Denver coach George Gwozdecky has been the big shocker so far.

Then there is Minnesota, which already has lost five underclassmen to professional hockey, including four of its top five scorers.

Five other underclassmen from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association have given up their remaining eligibility, even before St. Cloud State plays in this weekend’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.

Given all of that news, it would be easy to think Minnesota State will be one of the favorites in the WCHA next season.

But then you remember that the conference is breaking up, and those teams no longer will be league foes for the Mavericks.

It’s too bad. After this year’s record-breaking, turnaround season, it sure would have been interesting to see how much higher Minnesota State could have risen in that league with Stephon Williams, Matt Leitner, Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Zach Palmquist — among others — back for coach Mike Hastings’ second season.

After going from 11th place in the WCHA to a tie for fourth place and the Final Five (and then the NCAA tournament), the Mavericks sure seem like a team that was ripe to compete for the MacNaughton Cup against several teams that have won it in recent years.

The Mavericks indeed will be the favorite to win that trophy in the new WCHA next year. They were the only team from of the 10 that will be in that league to make the NCAA tournament and return all of that talent, along with Zach Lehrke, Johnny McInnis, Chase Grant, Dylan Margonari and Teddy Blueger.

But this is not to knock the new WCHA.

While the sexy names — Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Denver, etc. — are breaking away, the WCHA will remain a strong conference, even if some are considering it a mid-major of sorts.

Ten days ago, during the Midwest Regional in Toledo, Ohio, Hastings mentioned the recent improvements at the event’s host school, Bowling Green, as a strength, as well as the rich history of programs like Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State, as well as of the conference itself.

“The game that we’re playing is pretty special,” Hastings said during a pre-tournament press conference. “There are a lot of good players out there, and we’re excited about where we’re at and where we’re going and the programs we’re going to be associated with down the road.”

If you think Minnesota State or another new WCHA team can’t be a player on the national stage, just look at the Frozen Four with the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Quinnipiac, and Yale — which knocked out Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Regional — coming out of another so-called mid-major, the ECAC.

“We’re very proud of being part of the WCHA and what it is now and what it’s going to be tomorrow,” Hastings said.  I think the WCHA has a pretty proud, rich history. And we’re going to try and continue to build on that.”

Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.

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